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New curator always wanted museum job

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Walking through the streets of Rome, history can be seen, studied and felt.

Churches and monuments are made from rock quarried centuries ago. Buildings that are 500 years old are considered young. The frozen cityscape of Pompeii displays what life was like in first-century Italy.

As David Pfeiffer toured the ancient city, his career path became clear. He wanted to be part of preserving history and presenting it to people, instead of just reading dates out of a book. He wanted to work in museums.

“I live for that ‘a-ha’ moment, when they realize something really cool or fascinating,” he said. “Working in a museum lets me do that.”

Pfeiffer has stepped into the role as curator of the Johnson County Museum of History. He will be in charge of planning, designing and assembling new exhibits at the museum, as well as maintaining and enhancing the existing collection.

As a lover of history, he relishes the opportunity to get people excited about the past, to get inside of the people, places and times that helped shape the county and investigate their lives.

“You get a blank room. It’s almost like an artist with a canvas — what am I going to do with this room?” he said. “You have so much control over what people see when they come into a room, and you have a chance to shape their experience.”

The previous curator, Anna Musun-Miller, stepped down from her position in November to accept a job as a conservation programs interpreter at the Indianapolis Zoo.

“David has experience creating engaging and hands-on exhibits that appeal to a wide audience,” museum director Brenna Cundiff said. “We have begun to incorporate more hands-on exhibits into our galleries, and David has the expertise to continue as we renovate permanent galleries in the museum.”

Historical tales have always fascinated Pfeiffer. Both of his grandfathers fought in World War II, and he’d sit and listen to their stories. Late at night, after his parents had gone to sleep, he would stay up reading American history.

He majored in history at Loyola University Chicago but was unsure what to do with that degree as a career.

But during his junior year, while studying abroad in Rome for a semester, he decided that museum work was his passion.

“One of the things I noticed was, in class, a teacher would put up slides of a historic area or building, and half the class is asleep. But when you go out to see those sites, they would light up. When you go out and see everything first hand, it was fascinating to see them react,” he said.

After graduating from Loyola, Pfeiffer worked toward a master’s degree in public history at IUPUI. He had internships in world-famous institutions, such as the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis.

Before earning his master’s degree in 2012, he was part of the internship staff at the Great Lakes Naval Museum in North Chicago. During his time there, Pfeiffer was put in charge of curating an exhibit on diversity in the Navy and how it changed over time.

He chose the artifacts that would go into it, arranged the display cases and wrote the descriptions that would guide visitors. With such a controversial and sometimes regrettable aspect of American history, he had to balance his presentation carefully.

Those experiences helped him develop the skills needed to be a successful museum curator, he said.

“You learn mental flexibility. Especially in a museum like this, with only two full-time staff members, you have to be able to do a lot,” he said. “When you get these internships, they throw a lot at you, so you can find out where your area of interest is.”

Pfeiffer was working with the Great Lakes Naval Museum when his fiancee was hired to work at the Indiana Historical Bureau. They decided to move to central Indiana, and he started looking for a job here.

When the opening came up for the Johnson County Museum of History, he thought it was a good fit.

Museum leaders agreed.

“David really became an obvious choice based on his wide range of experience from the museum side as a curatorial intern designing exhibits with the Great Lakes Naval Museum and his experience on the foundation and fundraising side as a contractor,” Cundiff said. “At a small museum you have to be prepared to do it all. His experience has prepared him for this type of work.”

Almost immediately after being hired as the curator, he was thrust into his new role. Musun-Miller had scheduled a retrospective exhibit on Dick and Tom Van Arsdale, Greenwood residents who went on to successful basketball careers.

“That was a good way of getting my feet wet here. One of the biggest things for me is becoming acclimated to the collection,” he said. “A lot of the exhibit work is using the strengths of the collection — what do we have a lot of, and what stories can we tell.”

Future plans include updating the Civil War exhibit that permanently sits in the museum. New artifacts will be on display, and the presentation will be updated.

He’s also been trying to learn as much as he can about Johnson County and its past. Preserved historical places such as the Johnson County Courthouse and the Artcraft Theatre have intrigued him, and he wants to branch out and include more of the county overall in the museum’s programs.

“You want to put your stamp on it. I’ve only been here two weeks, so I’m trying to learn as much as I can to get the story out the public as best we can,” he said.

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